Comics You Should Own flashback – 300

by  in Comic News Comment
Comics You Should Own flashback – <i>300</i>

The movie 300 is coming out this weekend, and I thought that some people who haven’t read the comic might wonder what all the fuss is about. So I thought I’d repost the very first Comics You Should Own (now with pictures!), from way back in February 2005. The good old days! It’s an impressive comic, and I’m looking forward to the movie. So read on!

300 by Frank Miller.

Dark Horse, 5 issues, cover dated May-September 1998.

300 has been collected in a beautiful “wide-screen” hardcover, so it’s not too hard to find. It’s a perfect book to give to a non-comic book fan, since it’s a graphic retelling of the Spartan defense at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. and has nothing to do with any other comic book. It’s also one of Miller’s most exciting works. If The Dark Knight Returns is his magnum opus, this ranks right behind it (I’ve never read Sin City, by the way).

The story is pretty straightforward, and Miller outlines it well in issue #1. The Persian king Xerxes wants to take over the world. He sends a messenger to Sparta telling them he wants a token gesture of submission. The Spartan king Leonidas kills the messenger and prepares for war. Leonidas plans to stop the Persian advance at a narrow pass through the mountains, a pass bordered on the other side by the sea. The Persian numbers will not be a factor because of the little space, and Spartans will kill them easily. As most people should know but don’t (don’t get me started on public education in America), the Spartans held the pass with only 300 soldiers and drove off the Persians, with the cost of their own lives. It was enough to preserve Greek independence (or, more accurately, the independence of many Greek city-states) and usher in the Golden Age of Athens later in the century. The defense of Thermopylae, along with the Battle of Salamis, where Xerxes’ navy was decisively beaten, are two of the most important events in Western history.

Miller’s telling of the story is boldly done. His art has evolved since his early days on Daredevil, and even since Dark Knight. In this book, he has turned the pages into a grand palette for his bold vision, with double-paged spreads that look even better in the collected edition (I don’t own it, but I’ve looked at it). Miller puts a great deal of power into each page, and it shows. This is mythic storytelling to match the mythic subject matter. We see the young king kill a wolf in a flashback story told by an old man to emphasize Leonidas’ initiation into Spartan society. The legend of the king is only enhanced with his treatment of the Persian ambassador.

The Spartans march north to meet the Persians, and Miller again uses his art to convey to magnificence of the army. Leonidas is part of the army, yet still above it as its commander, and his strength and leadership are present throughout the book. He is a man ahead of his time and of his time, as shown clearly by his treatment of a crippled and deformed soldier, Ephialtes. This young man tells the king about a path around the gates that can be used by the Persians to outflank the Spartans. He is belittled by the captain of the army, but Leonidas knows that this information can be useful and asks Ephialtes more about it. He admires the young man, who has worked hard to become a soldier despite what Spartan society (and, to a certain degree, today’s society) thinks about a less-than-perfect physical specimen being somehow less than human. Although Leonidas shows remarkable compassion for the soldier, in the end, he points out that as a consequence of his deformity, Ephialtes cannot join the Spartan phalanx, since he cannot hold up his shield. The phalanx is what makes the Spartans so formidable, and it cannot have anyone out of place. In despair, Ephialtes throws himself off a cliff. Leonidas does not mourn him.

This is a short episode in the book, and soon, the battle begins. Miller shines in drawing the bloody confrontation, as the faceless Persians in their “fancy” armor (the Greeks fight almost naked) swarm like flies over the hill, while the Spartans stand in their phalanx, ready for battle. Miller contrasts the brave Spartans, who are free soldiers, with the cowardly Persians, who beg for mercy the instant things don’t go their way. It’s an interesting theme of Miller’s work, one which I will return to. After the initial stages of the battle, Leonidas goes out to parley with Xerxes. Here Miller again shows the contrast between the two sides. Leonidas, as we have seen, is part of his army, fighting alongside his men, remembering all their names. Xerxes, who is drawn more like an African than an Asian, is carried to the battle on a huge throne carried by dozens of Persian slaves. He is all pierced more than a punk rocker and bedecked in a golden robe. I don’t know if Xerxes was actually as effeminate as Miller makes him seem, but he’s trying to make a point, and he makes it magnificently. Leonidas, of course, rejects all of Xerxes’ offers to back down, and nothing comes of the meeting. Xerxes then throws his elite shock troops, the Immortals, into battle. The carnage is again lovingly rendered. Leonidas allows himself a glimmer of hope.

We know, however, that he’s doomed, and so we see Ephialtes, who has survived his plunge off the cliff, abasing himself before Xerxes and telling him about the path around the gate. (Xerxes has a great line here – he tells Ephialtes, whose deformity causes him pain, that “cruel Leonidas demanded that you stand. I only require that you kneel.”) When it is discovered that the Persians are surrounding them, the other Greeks want to retreat. Leonidas, in typical Spartan fashion, tells them that Spartans don’t retreat, and they prepare for the final assault. Xerxes gives them one last chance, but they opt for glory. The one Spartan who leaves (Leonidas orders him) tells the story as an inspiration for the Greeks a year later, when Xerxes was finally defeated and driven from Greece, ensuring the rise of the West.

It’s a well told story, and the major facts are correct, although I don’t know how much of it is fictional. It’s interesting to see most of Miller’s favorite themes throughout the book and how he incorporates them. The major theme is that of duty and honor and freedom. Of course, the Spartans at this time weren’t really any more free than most people in the world – even the Athenians, with their democracy, had a severe limitation on those who could vote. But it’s the freedom of the Spartans that makes them such good soldiers – Miller continuously contrasts them to the slaves of Persia, who break at the first sign of trouble. They have no duty to a cause or honor, so therefore they have nothing to fight for. It’s not terribly subtle, nor is it completely axiomatic that those who fight for a cause will fight better than those who do not (the French Foreign Legion being a modern example of mercenaries fighting well), but it is an important theme in Miller’s works and begs the question of what he’s trying to say about the modern world. There’s also the question of whether the Persian army was really that bad – it’s true they lost at Marathon in 490 B.C. and at Salamis and Plataea in 480-479 B.C., but Darius (Xerxes’ father) and Xerxes himself conquered quite a large empire in the sixth and fifth centuries, and surely it couldn’t have just been because of their numbers? It’s also true that plenty of Greeks fought on the side of the Persians. Real life, as usual, is a lot messier than fiction. Miller conveniently ignores those facts because they don’t fit with his message.

Other common themes of Miller’s work are here – a sort of fascism, the feminization of weakness, the masculinization of females, and homoeroticism. King Leonidas is a good king, but that doesn’t mean he’s not an absolute ruler. As usual with many comic book writers, Miller seems to have a predilection toward benevolent dictatorships. Writers don’t seem to like democracy because too often people don’t vote the way they think is right. Leonidas is the ideal king – strong but fair, fighting with his men, refusing to turn back, honoring duty and courage above all else. Miller’s interest in a fascist kind of state isn’t as obvious here as it is in some of his other work (which is why I’m only mentioning it briefly), but it’s still there.

Miller also exhibits a strange kind of thinking toward weakness and females. He tends to make weakness a feminine characteristic, even as he makes his women more masculine. As noted above, Xerxes is very feminine compared to Leonidas, and Xerxes wouldn’t dream of entering the battle. Ephialtes is weak as well, and what he wants in return for helping Xerxes – the usual, money, women, and a uniform – are subtly scorned by Miller because obviously Ephialtes didn’t earn them. Ephialtes is the only Spartan who betrays the king, and it’s somewhat disturbing that he’s also the only Greek who’s not a perfect physical specimen. Perhaps in the context of the book it makes sense, but as history tells us, plenty of Greeks were willing to sell out, and I’ll bet none of them were deformed. It says a lot about Miller that Ephialtes caves in so easily, especially since we see that he has tried all his life to live up to the Spartan ideal. This feminine weakness is obvious in other Miller works, most notably in Dark Knight. The Joker, who has always had an aura of androgyny, is extremely so in Miller’s story, and he’s weak (he kills people by poisoning instead of “fixing them with his hands” like manly man Batman). Of course, the Joker is very feminized quite often, such as in Mike Barr and Alan Davis’ brief Detective Comics run and in Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum, but I’m not ready to delve into that here.

Another theme briefly explored in 300 is the masculinity of women. The only women to appear in the book are the oracle who advises Leonidas against going to war (because the priests who control her have been bribed by the Persians) and the queen. The queen, especially, embodies the true Spartan ideal of duty and honor, telling Leonidas the standard line about returning with his shield or on it and hiding her tears from him, because, again, weakness is a feminine attribute, and his females must be strong, which is a masculine attribute. Miller has never written females particularly well (Martha Washington being an exception), with his women being either a stand-in for a male character (Carrie Kelley in Dark Knight, who was prepubescent anyway – and don’t get me started on Selina Kyle’s cameo in that book) or created simply to be killed (Elektra). Even if you like those characters (and I do), he does try to “turn them male” by not really allowing them to be women. Carrie Kelley isn’t really a girl, she’s Robin, and Miller made her female just to jolt Batman fans. Elektra renounces her feminine side when her father is killed, and “becomes male” by training to be a ninja. I don’t want Elektra to settle down with Matt Murdock – that’s not what I mean when I say she rejects her feminine side. I’m saying that she becomes what Miller thinks is a good character by studying what he thinks of as masculine things – again, honor and duty (to her dead father).

This is strange, since there’s a strong theme of homoeroticism throughout 300 and throughout Miller’s works. Obviously, it’s tough to avoid it when you’re writing about ancient Greece, since they were big on that, but I still very much doubt that the king would meet the Persian ambassador wearing just a cloak around his shoulders and everything else hanging out. I could be wrong, and Miller has written that he did a lot of research for the book, but it seemed strange to me. The Greeks also march across terrain and do some fighting in all their glory. Miller seems to revel in drawing naked men. This ties into the brotherhood of the army and how there’s a blatant hatred of the ostentatious femininity of Xerxes and the Persians. It’s not new in Miller’s work (nor in many comic books, where the two main protagonists – mostly men – are more interested in each other than women), but it’s prevalent here because of the subject matter. It’s not necessarily homophobic, but I wonder how Miller would respond if called on it.

300 is a strong book that offers a worldview of both the ancient world and an idealized modern world. The art is gorgeous and the story hums along to its triumphant conclusion. The hardcover is $30, which is a pretty good bargain. It will be interesting to see how the movie stands up, because the book itself is pretty spectacular.